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The Public Education and Business Coalition hosted a panel of regional school district superintendents May 4 to discuss the teacher shortage affecting Colorado. 

The coalition promotes teamwork among the business and educational communities to solve problems. 

Panelists included Deputy Superintendent for JeffCo Public Schools  Kym LeBlanc-Esparza, Superintendent for Adams 12 Chris Gdowski, Superintendent of Fremont RE-2 School District Brenda Krage and Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. 

Prior to their discussion, remarks came from Cindy Marten, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Governor Jared Polis, Colorado Commissioner of Education Dr. Kathy Anthes, PEBC President and CEO Sue Sava and Lee Wheeler-Berliner, managing director of Colorado Workforce Development Council. 

Wheeler-Berliner said Colorado had 6,910 teaching positions to fill in the 2020-2021 school year. That translates to 180,000 students without a teacher in their classroom. 

He also said per-pupil funding during the 2020-21 school year was $9,014. That’s lower than the national average of $12,624. 

Wheeler-Berliner also explained that median earnings among teachers in Colorado are $23.96 per hour and $49,800 per year – significantly below the national median earnings, which are $25.51 per hour and $53,100 per year. 

According to Great Education Colorado, the state ranks 43rd in spending on education and 50th in teacher wage competitiveness. 

Money talks

“There’s not a single school district in the state of Colorado that pays their starting teachers at a cost-of-living wage,” said the Fremont district’s Krage. 

Each superintendent agreed that teachers are not paid enough to retain them, and Adams District 12’s Gdowski says that’s a huge problem. 

“I think money matters, and it matters a lot,” he said. 

Competing with huge chains also comes into play. For internal support staff, he said the district increased pay from $12.5 per hour to $15 per hour in August, but that still might not be enough.

“I drive by each day and see McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Target, Chick-fil-A paying $16 an hour,” he said. “I sit here today and we have over 100 support staff positions that are unfilled.”

Three causes

Aurora’s Munn said the educational workforce faces three issues that cause the shortage: over-regulation, disruption and resource depletion. 

“What everybody in the business community knows is the more regulation you have, the fewer people you have in that workforce because it constrains the number of people who can be engaged,” Munn said. 

For disruption, he pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic and the “rampant partisanship” around issues teachers face day today. He said inflation and supply chain issues also affect schools, which has helped lead to resource depletion. 

As well, Munn noted that there is a fundamental shift in the workforce. Employees are asking for more flexibility and more control over their workplace. 

“If you have a room full of five-year-olds, you need an adult in that room,” he said. “Saying ‘I want to remote in today’ is not an option.”

To attempt to cover for the unfilled jobs, Munn’s district has administrative employees –  including Munn himself – taking days in different positions. Jefferson County’s LeBlanc-Esparza echoed that sentiment. 

“I know that I feel if I had a CDL license, I would have probably been driving the bus at some point in time this year,” she said. 

Added stress

The vacant positions shed more responsibilities on the staff, which increases stress. Gdowski said he thinks educators have been pushed to the edge in the last couple of years regarding workload and expectations. 

“There’s more and more that is expected on the federal level, the state level, the local level, from parents pushing on us, and then to add to it, this year has (had) really intense student behaviors and challenges,” Gdowski said. 

Gdowski said elementary principals described at school board meetings that staff routinely evacuates kindergarten classrooms at least once a week due to students throwing chairs, books and other things around the classroom. 

Krage said social media is impacting students and the social norm of how students are treating teachers. 

“The new unfortunate social norm that comes with such a responsive social media climate is deteriorating (teachers),” she said. “Teachers have had enough, they really are not respected and spoken to (correctly) or even given the benefit of the doubt of why they have put something in their classroom or why they had a well-intentioned conversation with a student before the parent is flying off the handle over social media.” 

“People are hitting the wall,” Gdowski said. 

Crystal ball

“I think you have to kind of look at that crystal ball on what education is going to look like if we don’t address some of the points that have been made this morning,” Krage said. 

She explained if the districts can’t hire the vacant positions and address the workforce shortage, schools are headed to a permanent structure of remote teachers and Zoom lessons. 

To stop that path, ballot initiatives, regulation and other factors driving people out of the workforce must be addressed, she said.

Some of that could also start with more apprentice programs and the recruitment of teachers. 

“How do we go into our community? How do we recruit those moms that want a schedule that maybe matches their child? How close are they to a teaching license? Do we have parents in our buildings that we could train to get them into our pipeline?” she asked.

LeBlanc-Esparza suggested businesses give employees an opportunity to take a day and volunteer as substitute teachers. 

Advice to businesses

The coalition offered ways businesses can help stem the teacher shortage, some included creating and supporting scholarships for teacher apprenticeships, funding teachers in an innovative business model based on retention outcomes and creating or contributing to a living wage fund to make child care more available and affordable for teachers. 

“In the end, until we have more resources that allow us to spread workload amongst more people, I fear that we’re going to continue to have the same challenges,” Gdowski said.